The intersection of race with sexual attraction has always led to sticky questions about “types” and preferences. As Jackie Goldsby asks, “How does race condition the terms on which representation occurs? How does race effect (and affect) one’s agency within the marketplace of sex?”1
In 2009, OKCupid released a study confirming that a racial bias underlies heterosexual (since the study did not look at men rating men, or women rating women) dating preferences. Five years later, in 2014, the study was conducted again, and the sample drew on data from 25 million accounts between 2009 and 2014. Once again, the same trends were seen–this time, “intensified a bit”2.
In general, OKCupid’s study found that Asian women were consistently rated higher than black, Latina, and white women by the men of these races. In contrast, black women were penalized by everyone except for black men.
As an Asian woman, I wanted to dig deeper into how racial and gendered stereotypes intersect in American culture to fetishize Asian women in the bubble of online dating/Tinder swiping. Why are Asian women consistently rated higher by Asian, black, Latino, and white men than even white women? Why does the phrase “yellow fever” not only refer to a viral disease, but also to a (usually heterosexual, cis, white) sexual obsession towards woman of (usually East) Asian descent?
Asian women have historically been exoticized and sexualized in Western cultures, often in direct opposition to how black women are sexualized. Black women are often stereotyped as angry, Asian women as submissive and silent. While black female genitalia (buttocks, labia, in the case of the Hottentot Venus) have been hypersexualized and gawked at by white male spectators, Asian female genitalia is sexualized in stereotypical terms that emphasize the woman’s supposed “small” or “submissive” features: the “tight, sideways vagina” that was once the subject of male fantasy.
While not often used today, an idea that manages to accomplish both racism and fetishism was the myth of the “Asian sideways vagina”. This rumor “originated as racist humor amongst gentlemen visiting Chinese prostitutes in California brothels in the mid-1800s”3. The rumor was part of the larger societal fetishizing of Asian women, and continued through the Korean War, because why be misogynistic when you can be misogynistic and racist?
The idea that Asian women (usually only with the image of light-skinned, European-featured East Asian women) are two-dimensional, helpless “lotus blossoms” has taken root in cultural media productions such as Madama Butterfly, and more recently in the Hollywood film Memoirs of a Geisha (which has a Chinese woman play a Japanese woman). Both illustrate a “novel”, “mysterious” female beauty that will “love you long time”. It’s not surprising that Asian women have been historically (up to the present day) fetishized in this way. Many East Asian women are light-skinned, have small, straight noses, and other features of typically white beauty, combined with a sprinkling of the “Other” in terms of “Oriental” differences (such as language and culture). As Craig points out, “In dominant culture, the beautiful exotic woman was Oriental, and in 1914, the Orient extended in the western mind from Asia through Egypt….Difference could be beautiful if it was embodied in the form of a fascinating exotic woman.”4
So how does all of this tie into the small virtual world of Tinder? Tinder is a mobile app that markets itself as a dating app, but is realistically used more as a hookup app. Users are presented with a number of options (interested in male, female, or both; age range desired; number of miles away, etc.) but ultimately judge other users by first appearance. Male users far outnumber the female, and safe behind a screen and relative anonymity, often commit racial microaggressions.
A common argument used by men who consider themselves only attracted to Asian women is: “you can’t help who you’re attracted to”. It’s true that different people have different preferences–say you prefer tall people. However, I’m willing to bet that being tall is not your only requirement for a significant other; there’s a difference between having a preference and a fetish. Most of the men who fetishize (East) Asian women don’t see these women as fully-formed individuals, but as the living embodiment of whatever stereotype they’ve built up in their minds: submissive, exotic, somehow both innocent and “slutty”, etc. And what happens when, oops, they realize you’re an actual person?
1. Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Introduction.” The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2006. Print.
2. Rudder, Christian. “Race and Attraction,
2009-2014”, OKCupid, (blog), Sep 10, 2014, https://theblog.okcupid.com/race-and-attraction-2009-2014-107dcbb4f060.
3. Scherker, Amanda. “6 Crazy Things People Used To Believe About Vaginas”, Huffington Post, (blog), December 10, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/vagina-myths_n_6135820.html.
4. Craig, Maxine Leeds. “Chapter Three”. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.